Mikaela Shiffrin reacts after a run at the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup women's downhill on Dec. 2, 2018 in Lake Louise, Canada.
On Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018, Mikaela Shiffrin claimed her first world cup super-G win in Lake Louise, Alberta. It was her third win in three consecutive weekends — and the wins came across two very different alpine skiing disciplines. She won slaloms in Levi, Finland, and Killington, Vermont, in late November.
More importantly, the super-G win put the 23-year-old two-time Olympic champion in a class by herself. She is the only alpine skier ever — male or female — to win all six currently contested alpine skiing disciplines. These include slalom, giant slalom, downhill, super-G, combined, and the most recently added, parallel slalom (also called a city event).
Shiffrin is the seventh woman to win in the five more traditional disciplines (not including parallel slalom). She joined Lindsey Vonn and Bode Miller as the third American to achieve this feat. Miller won four of the five disciplines in less than two months in 2004. This feat was not lost on young Shiffrin, who grew up with the dream of emulating Miller.
“The athletes who were able to switch from winning slalom one weekend to speed races the next, then go do a GS and bring a style of skiing and a technique that was fast in everything, no matter what they were doing, was so inspiring,” Shiffrin said by phone from Switzerland, where she is preparing for the next world cup races.
This ability is what Shiffrin considered best in the world. And she was “over the moon” to join their ranks.
But what does it take to win in every alpine discipline — to shift from the fast, quick turns of slalom one week to the terrifying speed of downhill the next, then to throw in a parallel slalom set on a scaffolding in the middle of a city?
First, winning across tech (slalom and giant slalom) and speed (downhill and super-G) disciplines takes different techniques. In tech races, the harder you push, the faster you go, explained Shiffrin. But in speed races, “that doesn’t always pan out,” she said. It takes smoothness to win in downhill and super-G — like “water rolling down a hill.”
Perhaps one of the biggest differences comes in parallel slalom or the city events, which debuted on the world cup in January 2011. These races involve head-to-head elimination formats, where the skiers start behind a BMX-like start.
“First, you have to nail the timing of the start,” said Shiffrin. “If you barge, it completely screws up your timing.”
But if you’re slow out of the start, you have to play catch-up. Seeing your competition next to you can cause you to take risks you would not take in a normal slalom race, she explained.
Then there’s the on-course technique. Although it’s called a slalom, and the racers use slalom skis, they cannot block the gates like they do in a traditional one-pole slalom. In parallel slalom, the gates are paneled (two poles connected by a fabric panel), and only the tallest slalom skiers can block them as if they were traditional slalom gates. Most skiers have to ski around the gates — almost a giant slalom technique around tightly-spaced gates.
“It’s still racing,” said Shiffrin. “But for me, I have to train for a city event as a completely different event because it is.”
The mindset of the alpine disciplines is also very different. In tech races, skiers compete in a morning run. If they finish in the top 30, they contest the afternoon run, meaning they must remain focused for most of the day.
“You’re waking up earlier in the morning, going out, doing your warmup runs, inspection, first race run, then you have the whole process of handling where you stand after the first run,” explained Shiffrin. “For me, if I’m in the lead or if I’m in fifth place or if I’m in 10th place, whatever place I’m in, I have to completely regroup and figure out how to manage that for the second run.
“Normally, I end up trying to treat the second run like a completely different race. So it feels like it’s two races in one.”
Speed races are more chill, despite the, well, speed. Downhills are one-run races, and skiers get training runs, so they know what the course is like. Not so in super-G. Skiers are allowed to inspect the course but get no training runs. With speeds approaching 60 mph in super-G, it can make for tough racing.
Still, Shiffrin finds the schedule of speed races more leisurely. Yet she has to find the balance between chilling throughout the day with the intensity needed to race.
She has also had to find a new rhythm in speed racing. In slaloms, she likes to find a rhythm. But at the Lake Louise super-G, she viewed the course almost like a video game, where each section was a level. Level one was the top section of the course where she held a tuck. After she completed that section, she moved on to level two: going over the first jump. And so on.
“It was the first time that I thought about it that way, but it simplified the whole thing in my head,” she said.
Then there are the parallel slaloms, where skiers can race up to four or five times in the elimination format.
“I have to go to a crazy dark place in my mind in order to get psyched up to compete head to head against other athletes in parallel slalom, especially if I keep moving up,” said Shiffrin, who normally has a happy, sweet demeanor. “Each run, I have to get more intense and bring out more fire. That’s something that I just started experimenting with last year.”
More Races To Come
Shiffrin will next race a super-G on Saturday, Dec. 8, then a parallel slalom on Sunday, both races in St. Moritz, Switzerland. She currently has won 46 world cups, tying her with Austria’s Renate Goetschl in fourth among women with the most wins. Only Vonn, Annemarie Moser-Proell and Vreni Schneider have won more.
Her next downhill will likely be in Cortina, Italy, in January. Last year, a few weeks before the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, she finished third in downhill, but then skied the super-G too aggressively and missed a gate.
There is only one alpine combined race this winter, in Crans-Montana, Switzerland, in February after world championships.
If Shiffrin wins the parallel slalom on Sunday, she will have won three different ski disciplines in one season. Only four skiers have won five disciplines in one season (Luxemburg’s Marc Girardelli in the late 1980s, Austria’s Petra Kronberger in the early 1990s, Croatia’s Janica Kostelic in the mid-2000s and Slovenia’s Tina Maze in 2012-2013). Only Maze has competed since the introduction of parallel slalom on the world cup calendar; she finished second twice in this discipline.
But don’t ask Shiffrin about records. In her mind, records and the word “greatest” come down to opinion. And to who got there first — like her idol Marlies Schild of Austria, whose slalom win record Shiffrin will likely break this season (Schild won 35 world cup slaloms in her career, Shiffrin currently has 34).
In Shiffrin’s opinion, she wants to be considered one of the world’s best technical skiers. With that will likely come more race wins — and thus, more records broken.
But in her mind, it’s not the records that she’s after. It’s the feeling.
She wants “to be able to get in the start and know that I can be the best racer, have the ability to be the best racer on any given day in any given event.”
But then she added with a quiet laugh, “But records are made to be broken and somebody’s going to come up and break them, right?”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.